Aspartame and saccharin continue to be blamed for a wide variety of ills, even though research has shown them to be safe if eaten in reasonable amounts.
Aspartame, marketed as Nutrasweet, has been the target of an intense negative internet campaign claiming that it causes many diseases, including lupus and multiple sclerosis. However, researchers on these diseases discount any connection.
John Olney, a respected scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, feels that aspartame causes brain tumors, but there is no solid data (2). He reported that the incidence of brain tumors has increased from 1975 to 1992 (4), when aspartame was first introduced, but a report in the Journal of the National Cancer institute found no increase in brain tumors.
Aspartame breaks down into two chemicals, formaldehyde and phenyalanine. Formaldehyde is a known cancer-causing agent. One study from Spain shows that breakdown products of formaldehyde accumulate in the body (3), but most studies find formaldehyde in the test tube and are unable to find it in living tissue. Most studies show no effect on IQ or personality (1).
The controversy over the safety of saccharin started in 1977, when Canadian studies showed that giving pregnant guinea pigs the amount of saccharin found in 1200 to 1800 soft drinks a day did not cause bladder cancer. Then their offsprings were given the same dose of saccharin and 50 percent of the males developed bladder cancer. The female offspring did not suffer bladder cancer, but that doesn't prove that saccharin causes cancer. When you take in the amount of saccharin found in 1800 soft drinks a day, you urinate pure saccharin sand. All urine contains ammonia which drives the saccharin sand into cells to damage them and increase risk or bladder cancer. These same changes can also be caused by instilling large amounts of sugar or salt into the bladder. Saccharin is 200 times sweeter than sugar and it sweetens food at such low doses that you consume only minute amounts.
Some of the negative reports on artificial sweeteners claimed that there was a conspiracy among manufacturers and the government to prevent the approval of Stevia (5), an intense sweetener derived from a South American plant. However, its use in foods was approved by the FDA in 2008.
Most people use artificial sweeteners to help control weight, but recent studies show that they may stimulate the hunger centers in the brain to make you hungrier so that you may eat more.
There is no convincing evidence that small amounts of any of the available artificial or non-caloric plant sweeteners will harm you. Consuming huge amounts of sweeteners or any other food may be harmful. A cup or two of an artificially-sweetened beverage is reasonable, but don't drink them in large quantities. Use water to quench your thirst.
1) Am J of Clin Nutr 1998(Sept);68(3):531-7.
2) J Natl Cancer Inst 1997(Jul) 16;89(14):1072-4.
3) Life Sciences 1998;63(5):337-349.
4) J Neuropathol Exp Neurol 1996(Nov);55(11):1115-23.
5) Center for Science in the Public Interest, "Stevia: not ready for prime time", Nutrition Action Newsletter, April 2000. "Although there is no evidence of harm to people, laboratory studies of stevia have found potential cancer and reproductive-health problems. Stevia depressed sperm production in male rats and reduced the number and size of the offspring of female hamsters. Until those concerns are disproven, stevia should not be used by manufacturers in soft drinks, candy, or other foods,"" said David Schardt, associate nutritionist for CSPI.
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